Clinton budget slates Md. dredge-project aid $22 million allocated to using Poplar Island as spoil-disposal site

March 20, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

The Clinton administration has earmarked $22 million in its fiscal 1997 budget to help restore the Chesapeake Bay's Poplar Island using mud and silt scooped from Maryland's extensive shipping channels.

With ports across the nation struggling to find dredge disposal sites, Poplar Island would become a national model as the first large-scale project to beneficially use dredged material.

"The project demonstrates that clean dredge material can be a resource rather than a waste," Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes said yesterday. "It's created a happy alliance," the Maryland Democrat said, "between economic and environmental interests."

The plan to restore Poplar Island is one of the solutions proposed by Maryland officials to deal with the dredging dilemma. Gov. Parris N. Glendening this year budgeted $35 million to develop the first half of the 1,100-acre project.

Other proposals include raising the dikes at Hart-Miller Island in Baltimore County, more open water disposal at Pooles Island and disposal of Inner Harbor material at Cox Creek. As a longer-term solution, the state is seeking sites for a major upper bay containment facility.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has approved the Poplar Island plan, estimates that Maryland, like many other states, faces a serious shortfall in disposal capacity in less than five years. Maryland's only major disposal site, Hart-Miller Island, is quickly filling up.

With ships getting larger and larger, open channels are critical to the economic viability of ports. Last year, 400 million cubic yards of dredge material the equivalent of a four-lane highway, 20 feet deep, from New York to Los Angeles was dredged from the nation's waterways. Maryland needs to dredge 4 million cubic yards a year.

The Poplar Island project will use dikes and breakwaters to ultimately contain some 38 million cubic yards of dredged material. It will create a new wetland habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife and halt further erosion of the once-popular Talbot County resort, now tidal marshes and mud flats.

Construction costs alone are expected to total $63 million, with state officials ultimately hoping to get 75 percent of that from the federal government.

Because of the expense of transporting dredge material to the lower bay site, the total cost of Poplar Island could reach $300 million. State officials are hoping to tap federal money for some of the long-term costs as well.

Governor Glendening praised President Clinton for including money for the Poplar Island project in his proposed budget, which was released yesterday.

"This project is a key component of the state's long-term dredging disposal strategy that will help to keep the port's shipping channels open for commerce and preserve the thousands of jobs that depend on port activity," the governor said.

The funding must be approved by Congress, which won't be easy.

"It's certainly better to have it in the president's budget than not in the current fiscal climate," Mr. Sarbanes said. "The case for doing this is very strong. In the past, [dredge disposal] has been done on cheapest costs. This is a breakthrough in concept, to start sinking more into beneficial-use programs."

Planned for more than five years, the Poplar Island project has drawn unanimous support from port and environmental leaders, typically at loggerheads over dredge-disposal sites. It also has the support of Maryland's congressional delegation.

"What we have going for us is broad support for this project that is rare in dredge-disposal projects," Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin said. "It makes it a lot easier to get federal funds with political and community support."

Pub Date: 3/20/96

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